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In the television world it's development season, which means that there's been a lot of chatter about a lot of projects, most of which are never going to make it to air. This year, we have all the usual suspects - remakes, adaptations of movies and books, spinoffs, and big star-driven vehicles. However, there's one particular piece of source material that it seems like everyone is jumping on: "The Wizard of Oz." According to Deadline, there are currently no less than five potential "Oz" adaptations in the works, none of them remotely similar to the original L.Frank Baum novel or the MGM theatrical musical. Instead, they're "reimaginings" and "revisionist" versions, intended to play on the audience's familiarity with a children's story that has become as universal as most fairy tales. However, looking at how each project is trying to tackle "Oz" provides some interesting insights on the creative process and the current trends in television.

Emerald City - An NBC drama described as a dark take on the "Oz" story similar to "Game Of Thrones," without the HBO content, of course. It's being put together by Matt Arnold, the showrunner of the recent "Siberia," for Universal Television. I'm the most interested in this one, because it's been suggested that it will actually look beyond the original "Wonderful Wizard of Oz," to some of the material in the other thirteen "Oz" books that L. Frank Baum wrote in the "Oz" series. One of the few real successes for NBC lately has been its steady Friday night performer "Grimm," but they've had mixed results with other genre properties like "Hannibal" and "Dracula." "Emerald City" is pretty amorphous at the moment - we don't know when it's set, if there will be many fantasy elements, or if it's going to be a limited series or a proper serial. Invoking "Game of Thrones" suggests some ambitions, but then again, all the new fantasy dramas are invoking "Game of Thrones."

Dorothy - A CBS medical drama from the executive producers of "Elementary." This looks to be the farthest removed from the original story, with modern day characters loosely inspired by the "Oz" characters, and incorporating a few similar themes. Despite the possibility of retaining a few fantasy flourishes, I suspect that "Dorothy" is going to end up looking an awful lot like "Grey's Anatomy" or "Private Practice," except all the doctors have punny names. Our heroine will surely be stuck trying to choose between potential beaus who lack in smarts, heart, and courage, respectively. There's nothing wrong with sticking to a formula - procedurals may be unglamorous, but they get ratings, and medical soaps are tried and true performers. However, of all the "Oz" projects in the works, it's the most obviously a gimmick here. Sherlock was a detective, so a mystery series makes sense. Where's the connection between the "Wizard of Oz" and doctors in love triangles?

Dorothy Must Die - The CW is adapting Danielle Paige's young adult novel that turns the original "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" on its head. In this semi-sequel, Dorothy and her friends have become power-hungry villains that our young heroine must defeat in order to save The Land of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West? Not so wicked, as it turns out. Tim Kring and several "Heroes" vets are involved in the development of this one. I'm rooting for it because while it's giving us mostly evil versions of all our favorite "Oz" characters, at least we know this one is going to be a straight action fantasy series that actually takes place in the Land of Oz. The CW is also much friendlier to genre projects than most, and this sounds like exactly the kind of story that would appeal to their younger-skewing audience. I'm worried about CW's notorious penchant for teen soapiness invading the works, but for now I'm focusing on the positive. Evil power-mad Dorothy takes over Oz. Neat.

Red Brick Road - Artist Rob Prior and writer Timm Schlattman of "Dexter" fame are bringing their revisionist "Oz" concept to Warner Horizon and Lifetime, drawing more iffy comparisons to "Game of Thrones." This time Dorothy is headed down the red brick road that we glimpsed in the "Wizard of Oz" movie instead of the yellow one, which promises to take her to darker and more forbidding places. As a fan of the original Oz books, I have to point out that the red brick road actually leads to Quadling Country and likely Glinda the Good's place, but where would the fun be in that? There's some interesting concept art for "Red Brick Road" floating around the internet featuring a redheaded Dorothy wielding a sword, and high fantasy versions of the Tin Man and the Wicked Witch. Frankly, the part I'm the most skeptical about is Lifetime's involvement. I know they've embraced high concept shows recently, but I haven't seen them do anything this high concept.

Warriors of Oz - "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" director Timur Bekmambetov has this set up as a miniseries over at Syfy. "Warriors" will introduce us to a new version of the "Wizard of Oz" story, where our hero travels through a post-apocalyptic version of the Land of Oz with three companions named - and I'm not kidding here - Brainless, Heartless, and Coward, on his quest to defeat the evil Wizard. Yep, this one has a male lead, and seems oddly male-centric. It's too early to say anything more than that for now, but this is certainly shaping up to be the least interesting of the five "Oz" projects so far. Bekmambetov's films tend to be flashy, but fairly shallow action flicks, and I expect this to be more of the same. This isn't the first time Syfy has delved into the "Oz" universe. They were also responsible for the last attempt at an edgy "Oz" miniseries, "Tin Man," in 2007.
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"Oz, The Great and Powerful" is the first big hit of 2013, grossing over $80 million at the American box office over the weekend. Disney has indicated that they're working on sequel plans already, so it looks like we have a real Oz film franchise on our hands at last. On the other hand, as a fan of the Oz books and the earlier Oz films, this isn't quite what I had in mind. Up front, I want to be clear that I haven't seen the new movie yet, but I've been reading copious spoilers and taking notes. This is one of those cases where I don't think knowing how it ends is going to impact the viewing experience much, and I've got a lot of concerns to address. Minor spoilers ahead.

L. Frank Baum's Oz books were fantasy stories written for children, and their main characters were children, usually girls like Dorothy and Ozma, but not exclusively. What Disney has done is to make an action-adventure film centered on a grown-up male protagonist, the Wonderful Wizard, played by James Franco. "Oz: The Great and Powerful" is positioned as a prequel to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," detailing how the Wizard first came to Oz and became its ruler. Assuming Disney plans to continue in the same vein in future movies, this changes the dynamics of Oz stories considerably. An adult hero means an adult POV, different goals and a different approach to the fantasy world. You lose the child's-eye view, and a lot of the sense of danger and wonder that go with it. Many of the fantasy elements and characters originally created to appeal to children have to be adjusted for the sensibilities of adults. For instance, the Wizard gets a winged monkey sidekick in the new movie who is not scary at all. He can talk, and is voiced by Zach Braff. Meanwhile, Glinda and the other witches are set up as potential love interests for the Wizard as well as antagonists.

Looking ahead, even with the Wizard as the lead character, Disney wouldn't have to depart too far from the books for future installments. The plots are simple enough that you could substitute the Wizard without much trouble. As we all know, the Wizard was eventually revealed as a humbug and departed from Oz, ceding leadership to the Scarecrow. However, in the books he found his way back to the Emerald City eventually and decided to stay, becoming a recurring character for the rest of the series who often came along on various adventures. You could transplant many of these stories to the period of time when the Wizard ruled Oz.. Also, while there was no mention of Glinda and the Wizard being romantically involved, they were good friends, and it's not out of the question that a deeper relationship could have grown out of that.

However, the most famous Oz material would be off limits if Disney wanted to stick with prequels. Anything involving Dorothy or Ozma or the characters closely connected to them would require the ousting of the Wizard from power. That's a route I'm not sure Disney is too eager about taking, considering the intellectual property issues with MGM. Then again, since the Wizard's power is based on a lie, according to the usual rules of Disney movie morality he has to come clean eventually. Remaking "The Wizard of Oz" would almost certainly go badly, but I wonder if you couldn't do a sort of "Rosencranz and Guildenstern" version of it, showing what the Wizard was doing behind the scenes during Dorothy's famous adventure. The biggest danger with this approach is that the Wizard might end up usurping Dorothy's place as heroine of her story.

That brings us to the gender problem that "Oz, the Great and Powerful" has created. There's a good article over at Jezebel about why positioning the Wizard as the hero and co-opting what was originally a very female-centric series is highly problematic. There's also been significant criticism about the characterization of the witches, which according to many reviews leaves a lot to be desired. In a prequel situation I think there's some wiggle room, but the Wizard muscling in on Dorothy's turf is definitely not acceptable. At the same time, keep in mind that Disney won't want to decrease the role of James Franco in any way, since he's the big headliner of the new franchise, and the company has a strong interest in brands that would be accessible to teenage boys. The last thing they want is to position the new Oz movies as girls' entertainment. That reduces the chances of getting major female characters with real agency front and center.

However, you could probably sneak in a young heroine or two by just keeping Franco's face on the posters, the same way Disney did with Johnny Depp and "Alice and Wonderland." Going back to a potential "Wizard of Oz" related project, you can't have the Wizard secretly saving the day without marginalizing one of the iconic girl heroes of American literature. But an entirely separate Wizard-centric story that supplements what Dorothy is doing? That could work. Then the following sequel could do an adaptation of "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz," book four of the Oz series, where the Wizard and Dorothy appear as co-leads trying to get back to Oz, and you could delve into the rest of the series from there.

I've been waiting a long time for new Oz films, and I'm not too picky about what we end up with. But Disney has a chance to do something very special here, depending on where they decide to take the series. The Oz universe is a vast one, and I've only touched on a few possible options.

Hoping for the best.
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The latest movie property up for a remake is "The Wizard of Oz," the 1939 MGM musical based on the book by L. Frank Baum. The LA Times recently announced that there are two major projects in development, one with Warner Brothers and one withe New Line. And neither of them have anything to do with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," an animated film helmed by John Boorman slated for 2011. Or the long-anticipated film version of "Wicked," the Broadway musical about the Wicked Witch of the West. Or the string of recent Oz-themed television projects, including a Syfy miniseries and a Muppet musical.

I'm glad that "Oz" is back in vogue, and I'm not too worried about the multiplicity of competing projects. The Oz books have long been in the public domain, and there have been dozens of adaptations of "The Wizard of Oz" over the years, in every possible medium you could think of, stretching all the way back to stage plays and radio dramas in the early 1900s. The story has been retold in graphic novels, anime series, rock operas, ice show spectacles, and a disturbing line of Todd McFarlane figurines. This is a property that is so iconic, so deeply ingrained into our collective cultural memory, it won't wear out its welcome any time soon.

On the other hand, as an old-school fan of the original Oz books, I can't help thinking that Hollywood isn't taking advantage of the available material. L Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels about Oz and its inhabitants, and later authors contributed at least two dozen more official volumes and hundreds of unofficial ones. Some of the series' best characters, like Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, the Hungry Tiger, the Nome King, Polychrome, and the Shaggy Man have rarely found their way to the screen. Instead, filmmakers have been happy to rehash, remix, and reinvent the familiar plot and characters of "The Wizard of Oz" ad infinitum.

I think the reluctance to explore the farther reaches of the Oz landscape is due in part to the notable failure of "Return to Oz," the 1985 Walter Murch film that was conceived as a semi-sequel to the 1939 "The Wizard of Oz." Taking elements from "The Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz," the second and third Oz books, it had a much darker tone than the MGM musical and included several truly terrifying moments that alienated young moviegoers and their parents. But "Return to Oz" is my favorite of the Oz adaptations by far, as it comes much closer to the feel of the Baum books, and featured some of the best work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Will Vinton Claymation, and other top special effects houses of the era.

Twenty-five years later, with so many adaptations and "reimaginings" going in darker and edgier directions, I'd say it's high time Hollywood tried again. If a "Wizard of Oz" remake does become a hit with audiences, there's plenty of unexplored territory in the Oz universe to sustain a full-blown film franchise. However this would require a fairly straight adaptation of the original and not a modern update - a conceit that's been central to so many other Oz projects. I don't think this will be a hard sell, as most contemporary and futuristic versions of "The Wizard of Oz" have fallen dead flat, "The Wiz" not withstanding.

The trick will be finding creative types with the guts to commit to the older material, but again, that shouldn't be difficult. Audiences have been rediscovering the 19th century tales of Lewis Carroll's Alice and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in theaters this season. "The Wizard of Oz," first published in 1900, is practically modern in comparison! But more than that, the Oz books present a great challenge to filmmakers: Can they finally do justice to one of the most beloved, most enduring children's series of all time?


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